If this were a game to test the progression for the Bengals offense, ranked No. 20 or worse during each season under Jay Gruden, they seemingly took a significant tumble early against the Green Bay Packers, nearly wasting a defensive effort that beautifully play-fully downsized Green Bay's passing offense into a mediocre, if not average, collection of players (for good reason) that are constantly praised by talking heads around the league.
Everyone had picked the Packers -- except those of us emotionally invested in this team, but we're defined as homers; you expect that. And Green Bay nearly rewarded those pregame selections, no thanks to a struggling offense that continues to make baffling errors that range from drive-stalling penalties to game-changing turnovers. Cincinnati turned the ball over three times against the Bears, including Dalton's interception on the first play of the season that led to a Bears touchdown. On Sunday against the Packers, the Bengals one-upped with four turnovers, and if not for the defense, Cincinnati's loss would have been absolute.
Yet, as has been the story since Mike Zimmer's arrival, the defense bailed out Jay Gruden's offense.
It was actually an exciting affair early when the Bengals received the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards, highlighted by a ninja-like dive from Giovani Bernard that gave Cincinnati a 7-0 lead. During the ensuing kickoff, Packers returner Jeremy Ross watched the football (aka, stick of butter) slip through his hands. After an intense scramble for the football, Taylor Mays emerged with the football on Green Bay's two-yard line. BenJarvus Green-Ellis pounded the football through the line of scrimmage for the touchdown and a 14-0 lead in the first six minutes of the game.
High five. We're going to dominate the darling Packers and shove these highlights down the throats of pregame prognosticators that picked Green Bay over Cincinnati. We tend to be trivial about such things.
But as is customary for quick starts by the Bengals (read: Bears, Chicago), things disintegrated from euphoric to horribly depressing. During six possessions from midway in the first quarter through the end of the first half, the Bengals turned the football over on four consecutive possessions, with two punts (three and out) to bookend those turnovers.
Thankfully, Zimmer's defense established their best performance of the season. It wasn't the scoring, or the yardage allowed that promotes our meaning. It was rising through adversity established by the offense and grasping the evading win with an iron-like fist.
"It was a great win, and (we persevered) through as many negative players I've seen in my life," Lewis said after the game. "At one point, I told coach Zimmer, 'When it rains, it pours.'"
After generating a first down, Andy Dalton poorly read the coverage on A.J. Green on third and seven with :51 seconds remaining in the first quarter, leading to a Sam Shields interception at Cincinnati's 27-yard line. Cincinnati's defense held Green Bay to only three yards, forcing Mason Crosby to convert a 41-yard field goal and reduce Cincinnati's lead, 14-3.
At the 14:12 mark in the second quarter, Jermaine Gresham did his "can't tackle" monster dance, but this time he lost the football and the Packers recovered at the Bengals 37-yard line. Wallace Gilberry and Michael Johnson sacked Aaron Rodgers on third and 17, forcing the Packers to punt without allowing a first down. BenJarvus Green-Ellis continued the turnover theme on Cincinnati's ensuing possession, having the football knocked out from behind with Clay Mathews crashing down from the outside. Safety M.D. Jennings scooped up the football for the touchdown, further shrinking Cincinnati's lead, 14-10 (but not the defense's responsibility).
On third and eight with 9:53 remaining in the second, Dalton avoids a Davon House sack but Mathews drills Dalton from behind and forces the fumble. After a handful of first downs, the defense shoves Aaron Rodgers out at the one-yard line to force another field goal while the Bengals maintain a 14-13 lead.
The lead would eventually evaporate; which happens in games with four turnovers.
With over five minutes remaining, the Packers reached the Bengals four-yard line but a Carlos Dunlap sack dropped Aaron Rodgers for an eight-yard loss, forcing the Packers to convert a 26-yard field goal. The Bengals defense held the Packers to 100 yards of offense, three field goals (their touchdown was a fumble returned for a touchdown), and one of seven on third downs in a first half that featured all of Cincinnati's four turnovers.
Not bad. Not bad, at all.
The Bengals defense continued to fight while Cincinnati's progressive recovery was initiated. Following Green Bay's touchdown to take 23-14 lead during the first drive of the second half, A.J. Green posted his first reception of the game with 10:08 remaining in the third quarter (seriously?!) -- the offense's first first down since the three minute mark in the third quarter. But a Mohamed Sanu drop on third and eight from the Packers 38-yard line forced the Bengals to punt. Punt. Not a turnover. Punt. Progressive.
Unfortunately, the Bengals defense momentarily shed their hardened skin.
Green Bay opened the second half with an 80-yard drive (thanks to 20 yards of penalties), scoring a touchdown to conclude the nine-play possession. On Green Bay's ensuing possession, following the Bengals 38-yard possession (the second-longest of the afternoon by this point), the Packers drove 92 yards. The quick five-play drive featured Johnathan Franklin's 51-yard run and a 30-yard Jordy Nelson reception, leading to a James Jones seven-yard touchdown.
Now the Bengals were losing 30-14.
Eventually the progressively improving offense fixed their turnover issues, reducing Green Bay's lead to nine points on a 20-yard touchdown reception to A.J. Green, but failed to capitalize on Terence Newman's interception late in the third quarter. Yet the importance of Newman's interception couldn't be more understated; if the Packers score, the game becomes extremely difficult for a Bengals squad refusing to give up the fight.
And good thing that they didn't.
With 13:48 remaining in the fourth quarter, Aaron Rodgers threw the football deep for Randall Cobb down the right sidelines. The technician, Leon Hall, mirrored Cobb's route and just as he turned towards the quarterback, Hall collected the football for the interception at the Bengals five-yard line.
On Cincinnati's ensuing play, Dalton dumped off the football to Giovani Bernard out of the backfield, and the rookie running back sprinted down the sidelines for a 31-yard gain to the Bengals 36-yard line. Andy Dalton completed a 22-yard pass to Marvin Jones on third and eight, beautifully sustaining the drive. Cincinnati eventually scored when Dalton floated a first down pass to Jones, who dove under the football for the touchdown, further reducing the Packers lead to three points. The point after kick was blocked, but the Bengals were only down by a field goal.
Now the Packers were stringing together a time consuming possession that began with 10:49 remaining in the game, to the 4:34 mark in the fourth quarter. Green Bay has third and 12 from the Bengals 41-yard line and a 30-27 lead. If the Packers convert, they'll have an opportunity to kill even more time off the clock. Aaron Rodgers flings the football to Randall Cobb, who exposed a wide-open gap in zone coverage, five yards shy of the first down marker. Leon Hall springs towards Cobb and makes the tackle, but not before a measurement confirmed that the Packers picked up a first down.
Tick, tock... red flag.
Head coach Marvin Lewis challenged the placement of the ball, and the ruling was overturned, settling Green Bay inches shy of the first down. Instead of kicking the field goal to take a six-point lead with four minutes left in the game, the Packers decide to go for it. Not only did Cincinnati's defensive line neutralize the Packers with missile-like linebackers filling potential running lanes and preventing Johnathan Franklin from picking up the first down, the football is jarred loose.
"With the challenge, you obviously had plenty of time to think about it," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "I probably over thought it, because my initial thought was to kick the field goal. I’m paid to make those decisions. When they go wrong, I’m responsible."
Reggie Nelson recovers, but loses it six yards into his return. Terence Newman, in a full-sprint, scoops up the football and returns it 58 yards for the touchdown, giving the Bengals a 34-30 lead with 3:47 remaining in the game.
Green Bay moved the football on their ensuing possession against a Bengals prevent-style defense, reaching midfield at the two minute warning. However, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson deflected Aaron Rodgers' final two passes of the game, forcing a turnover turnover on downs and sealing the win Sunday afternoon.
This offense needs a LOT of work but thankfully the defense is really that good. More importantly, nn the end, no player on the 46-man gameday roster gave up. Despite being down by 16 points midway through the third quarter, the offense corrected their issues and the defense held Green Bay long enough for Gruden's crew to overcome the adversity that faced. Point fingers at the coaching staff, Andy Dalton or anyone else. As long as you acknowledge that this team has more fight and refusal to give-up than we've ever seen -- almost like the '09 season. And that's the most impressive aspect to take from Cincinnati's win on Sunday.